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Chapter 36

XXXVI.

Miss Lynde had gone earlier than usual to bed, when Bessie heard Alan's door open, and then heard him feeling his way fumbingly down-stairs. She surmised that he had drunk up all that he had in his room, and was making for the side-board in the dining-room.

She ran and got the two decanters-one of whiskey and one of brandy, which he was in the habit of carrying back to his room from such an incursion.

"Alan!" she called to him, in a low voice.

"Where are you?" he answered back.

"In the library," she said. "Come in here, please."

He came, and stood looking gloomily in from the doorway. He caught sight of the decanters and the glasses on the library table. "Oh!" he said, and gave a laugh cut in two by a hiccough.

"Come in, and shut the door, Alan," she said. "Let's make a night of it. I've got the materials here." She waved her hand toward the decanters.

Alan shrugged. "I don't know what you mean." But he came forward, and slouched into one of the deep chairs.

"Well, I'll tell you what," said Bessie, with a laugh. "We're both excited, and we want to get away from ourselves. Isn't that what's the matter with you when it begins? Doctor Lacy thinks it is."

"Does he?" Alan asked. "I didn't suppose he had so much sense. What of it?"

"Nothing. Merely that I'm going to drink a glass of whiskey and a glass of brandy for every glass that you drink to-night."

"You mustn't play the fool, Bess," said her brother, with dignified severity.

"But I'm really serious, Alan. Shall I give you something? Which shall we begin on? And we'd better begin soon, for there's a man coming from the doctor to look after you, and then you won't get anything."

"Don't be ridiculous! Give me those decanters!" Alan struggled out of his chair, and trembled over to where she had them on the table beside her.

She caught them up, one in either hand, and held them as high as she could lift them. "If you don't sit down and promise to keep still, I'll smash them both on the hearth. You know I will."

Her strange eyes gleamed, and he hesitated; then he went back to his chair.

"I don't see what's got into you to-night. I don't want anything," he said. He tried to brave it out, but presently he cast a piteous glance at the decanters where she had put them down beside her again. "Does the doctor think I'd better go again?" he asked.

"Yes."

"When?"

"To-morrow."

He looked at the decanters. "And when is that fellow coming?"

"He may be here any moment."

"It's pretty rough," he sighed. "Two glasses of that stuff would drive you so wild you wouldn't know where you were, Bess," he expostulated.

"Well, I wish I didn't know where I was. I wish I wasn't anywhere." He looked at her, and then dropped his eyes, with the effect of giving up a hopeless conundrum.

But he asked: "What's the matter?"

She scanned him keenly before she answered: "Something that I should like to tell you—that you ought to know. Alan, do you think you are fit to judge of a very serious matter?"

He laughed pathetically. "I don't believe I'm in a very judicial frame of mind to-night, Bess. To-morrow—"

"Oh, to-morrow! Where will you be to-morrow?"

"That's true! Well, what is it? I'll try to listen. But if you knew how my nerves were going." His eyes wandered from hers back to the decanters. "If I had just one glass—"

"I'll have one, too," she said, with a motion toward the decanter next her.

He threw up his arms. "Oh well, go on. I'll listen as well as I can." He sank down in his chair and stretched his little feet out toward the fire. "Go on!"

She hesitated before she began. "Do you know who brought you home last night, Alan?"

"Yes," he answered, quickly, "Westover."

"Yes, Mr. Westover brought you, and you wouldn't stay. You don't remember anything else?"

"No. What else?"

"Nothing for you, if you don't remember." She sat in silent hopelessness for a while, and her brother's eyes dwelt on the decanters, which she seemed to have forgotten. "Alan!" she broke out, abruptly, "I'm worried, and if I can't tell you about it there's no one I can."

The appeal in her voice must have reached him, though he seemed scarcely to have heeded her words. "What is it?" he asked, kindly.

"You went back to the Enderbys' after Mr. Westover brought you home, and then some one else had to bring you again."

"How do you know?"

"I was up, and let you in—"

"Did you, Bessie? That was like you," he said, tenderly.

"And I had to let him in, too. You pulled him into the house, and you made such a disturbance at the door that he had to come in for fear you would bring the police."

"What a beast!" said Alan, of himself, as if it were some one else.

"He came in with you. And you wanted him to have some supper. And you fell asleep before the fire in the reception-room."

"That—that was the dream!" said Alan, severely. "What are you talking that stuff for, Bessie?"

"Oh no!" she retorted, with a laugh, as if the pleasure of its coming in so fitly were compensation for the shame of the fact. "The dream was what happened afterward. The dream was that you fell asleep there, and left me there with him—"

"Well, poor old Westover; he's a gentleman! You needn't be worried about him—"

"You're not fit!" cried the girl. "I give it up." She got upon her feet and stood a moment listless.

"No, I'm not, Bessie. I can't pull my mind together tonight. But look here!" He seemed to lose what he wanted to say. He asked: "Is it something I've got you in for? Do I understand that?"

"Partly," she said.

"Well, then, I'll help you out. You can trust me, Bessie; you can, indeed. You don't believe it?"

"Oh, I believe you think I can trust you."

"But this time you can. If you need my help I will stand by you, right or wrong. If you want to tell me now I'll listen, and I'll advise you the best I can—"

"It's just something I've got nervous about," she said, while her eyes shone with sudden tears. "But I won't trouble you with it to-night. There's no such great hurry. We can talk about it in the morning if you're better then. Oh, I forgot! You're going away!"

"No," said the young man, with pathetic dignity, "I'm not going if you need my help. But you're right about me tonight, Bessie. I'm not fit. I'm afraid I can't grasp anything to-night. Tell me in the morning. Oh, don't be afraid!" he cried out at the glance she gave the decanters. "That's over, now; you could put them in my hands and be safe enough. I'm going back to bed, and in the morning—"

He rose and went toward the door. "If that doctor's man comes to-night you can send him away again. He needn't bother."

"All right, Alan," she said, fondly. "Good-night. Don't worry about me. Try to get some sleep."

"And you must sleep, too. You can trust me, Bessie."

He came back after he got out of the room and looked in. "Bess, if you're anxious about it, if you don't feel perfectly sure of me, you can take those things to your room with you." He indicated the decanters with a glance.

"Oh no! I shall leave them here. It wouldn't be any use your just keeping well overnight. You'll have to keep well a long time, Alan, if you're going to help me. And that's the reason I'd rather talk to you when you can give your whole mind to what I say."

"Is it something so serious?"

"I don't know. That's for you to judge. Not very—not at all, perhaps."

"Then I won't fail you, Bessie. I shall 'keep well,' as you call it, as long as you want me. Good-night."

"Good-night. I shall leave these bottles here, remember."

"You needn't be afraid. You might put them beside my bed."

Bessie slept soundly, from exhaustion, and in that provisional fashion in which people who have postponed a care to a given moment are able to sleep. But she woke early, and crept down-stairs before any one else was astir, and went to the library. The decanters stood there on the table, empty. Her brother lay a shapeless heap in one of the deep arm-chairs.

William Dean Howells